HomeOperationsPhoenix-Area School District Uses Grant to Extend Student Transportation Services

Phoenix-Area School District Uses Grant to Extend Student Transportation Services

While not solving its school bus driver shortage, the Tolleson Union High School District located near Phoenix is using a $2 million state grant to increase transportation for homeless youth as well as for students who normally would not receive the service.

Robert Herzog, the district’s transportation director, shared details last month regarding the Transportation Modernization Grant awarded last year by A for Arizona, a nonprofit created in 2013 by then State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan to use best practices from the business community to help students succeed. The program kicked off the following spring by engaging 100 of the state’s high poverty school districts to understand the learning obstacles encountered by their students and strategize solutions that could help.

Gov. Doug Ducey and the state legislature appropriated $20 million last fall for the first Transportation Modernization Grant, and A for Arizona selected 10 school districts to receive $2 million each for use this year. Twenty-five percent of each award is required to go toward servicing students and families in rural areas.

Tolleson originally applied to use the funds to contract with transportation network company HopSkipDrive to transport students who qualify for service under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, explained Herzog, adding that now more students are benefiting from grant.

“At the end of the day we still know a school bus is the safest form of student transportation, ever. In a perfect world, we’d be able to transportation every student safely on a big yellow bus. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in right now,” he said.

The reality is that Herzog said on several occasions this school year, nearly one-third of his school bus drivers called in. That results in any and all office and garage staff filling in on routes and other trips. It also puts some students in peril of not having rides to and from school.

HopSkipDrive transports students from their current residence or facility directly to school and back again, and it’s expensive. But those costs, Herzog added, are comparable with the expenses of sending a 77-passenger school bus to pick up one student at a homeless facility. “It’s expensive to run a bus like that,” Herzog noted last month. “My last invoice was $80,000 but for 180 kids. Sending one bus for each of those kids would be at least that much, I think.”

While school districts must transport students experiencing homelessness to their school of origin, he added the grant allows Tolleson to also transport some students with disabilities. “Most of the kids we are transporting with a disability [via HopSkipDrive] are minor on the autism spectrum, basically the high-functioning students,” he said.

None require an aide per their Individualized Education Program. If they do require an aide, he added, they ride the school bus.

The program has also evolved to what Herzog called “a hub and spoke model,” where out-of-district students who otherwise wouldn’t be eligible for service can take HopSkipDrive vehicles from their residences to the closest district bus stop, where they then board the bus and ride the rest of the way to school. The service runs in reverse on the way home. Students who attend vocational centers also utilize the service.

“Everybody knows that not every student is meant to go to college. We do this to make sure we are doing everything we can possibly do for the good of our students,” Herzog said. “[HopSkipDrive] is a great model, I think because it services some of those students that we don’t normally get to work with,” he commented.

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While admitting that school buses can’t always promise that the same driver will be there tomorrow, especially during the current shortage, he would like to see more consistency from the contracted service to build rapport with the students.

“I do know there are certain drivers that probably [drive] the same student, but it’s not across the board. I’d like to see that streamlined because when you are working with even a mildly autistic student, change is not good for them. Anytime there is a change there is the possibility of an adverse reaction,” he added.

Herzog also said he would be interested in adding video monitoring to contracted vehicles, as all district vehicles including Chevy Traverse SUVs that are used to transport some McKinney-Vento students come equipped with the equipment.

“I’ve found so many times that saved us, when a parent says, ‘Well, your driver did this,’” he concluded. “It’s a much [needed] protection for us. I would want that in HopSkipDrive vehicles.”

HopSkipDrive does not offer video monitoring, a company spokeswoman said, due to privacy concerns. “HopSkipDrive is dedicated to safety above all else, and this includes considering the privacy rights of youth riders and CareDrivers,” said Miriam Ravkin, the company’s senior vice president of marketing.”

Instead, she shared that the company’s Safe Ride Support system provides live ride monitoring, real-time tracking, and alerts to parents as well as the CareDrivers during each student ride. The system also detects “anomalies” in real-time and perhaps even before they occur.

“The CareDriver app is integrated with a leading third-party platform that records events of the six riskiest driving behaviors. We have visibility into any events of risky driving behavior, while CareDrivers receive a personalized weekly scorecard that promotes iterative driving improvement,” Rivkin added. “The benefits are huge, including a 140-percent lower collision rate than the national average.”

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